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Review: San Diego Chargers Head Coach Mike McCoy on 4th Down

San Diego Chargers Head Coach Mike McCoy has received a lot of criticism for his conservative approach on going for it on 4th down in opposing territory. Does he really deserve it?

What do you mean we can go for it on 4th down?
What do you mean we can go for it on 4th down?
Kevork Djansezian

It has been a consistent theme throughout the season from this site that Mike McCoy is too conservative about going for it on 4th down in opposing territory. To determine if that reputation is really deserved, I ran every 4th down play at midfield or further through the 4th Down Calculator to see how it evaluates Mike McCoy's decisions. It turns out that the Chargers have provided ample sampling of this, with 40 such plays this season.

The calculator provides two ways of evaluating the decision, by estimated points earned by going for it, punting, or kicking a field goal, and by estimated win percentage for each option.

Plays Pts Optimal Decisions Estimated Points Lost Win% Optimal Decisions Estimated Wins Lost
40 18 (45%) 16.23 24 (60%) 0.61

I found there were two games that stood out as particularly bad in terms of Mike McCoy's decision making process. Let's take a look at the individual decisions in those two games.

Week 3 - San Diego Chargers at Tennessee Titans

This was the first week that Mike McCoy got a real chance to blow a fourth down decision in enemy territory. Week 1 against the Texans saw no 4th downs in opposing territory, and the only decision that McCoy may have messed up in the Week 2 Eagles game was close enough to warrant the more conservative decision. In this game, McCoy faced 3 4th downs in opposing territory.

The first was also possibly the worst decision, as the Chargers were facing a 4th and 1 from the Titans 39 yard line. In this part of the field, the calculator estimates a 74% success rate when going for it, with an estimated 2.78 points scored if successful, and 1.37 points for the Titans if failed, for a net of 1.7 expected points scored when going for it. A punt will net, on average, 0.04 points worth of field position. The decision to punt it lost the Chargers an estimated 1.66 points. As far as win percentage at this point in the game, the Chargers would win 79% of the time when going for it, and 73% of the time punting, for a 6% difference in win probability. McCoy opted to punt.

The second opportunity McCoy had he made the correct decision, choosing to kick the field goal on 4th and goal from the 26 yard line.

The third such play was very similar to the first one, a 4th and 1 from the Titans 47 yard line early in the 3rd quarter. The percentages play out similarly to the first play, with a difference of 1.38 points when going for it versus punting, and a difference of 5% in the win probabilities between the two decisions.

Week 9 - San Diego Chargers at Washington Redskins

In this game, Mike McCoy only faced two decisions, but he made terrible ones both times.

With the game still scoreless in the second quarter, the Chargers had a 4th and 4 from the 36 yard line. All three choices of going for it, kicking the field goal, or punting it are in play here. McCoy managed to choose the worst one, punting it. According to the calculator, going for it is slightly better than a coin flip, but if you fail you aren't giving away huge field position, and if you make it you are in scoring range. Going for it has a net point expectancy of 1.12 points. A field goal at this distance is slightly worse than a coin flip, with the upside the same but a bigger downside. This leads to a FG attempt have a net point expectancy of 0.38 points. Punting give you no chance of scoring, with only the benefit of pushing them slightly down the field, with an average of 0.11 of field position gained. The win expectancy between going for it and punting is 3%.

The other decision was the worst of the season by far. For this one you don't need a calculator to do it. With 7 seconds left in the game, the Chargers were down 3 points with 4th and Goal from the 1. There are two options here, go for the win or go for overtime. For overtime, your odds are easy to estimate, it is about 50/50. So for the decision here, the question Mike McCoy needed to ask was if his chances of converting a 4th and goal from the 1 were better than 50%. Given that the league average in this situation is 2 in 3 for success, and the Chargers have a fairly effective power running game with Ryan Mathews, this should have been a no-brainer. Display some cajones, and go for the win. We all know what the end result was, with the Chargers kicking the field goal and never seeing the ball in overtime.

You Play to Win the Game

It isn't a sure thing, but it isn't hard to imagine that more aggressive decision making could have led to wins in the two games highlighted here. If the Chargers convert both of those 4th downs to field goals against the Titans, and they score a touchdown at the goal line against the Redskins, the Bolts are 7-5 and a game up for the final seed in the playoff race. If they only convert one of those games, that still places them 6-6 and tied for that spot.

When they become head coaches, they tend to institute their system, and their word is law. That kind of power tend to make coaches more inflexible in their ways, which is a mistake. Ron Rivera this season is showing how a coach can learn to improve upon himself after taking the reins. Let's hope McCoy gets over his "we do what we do and that isn't going to change" phase and moves on to a "how can we improve, from top to bottom?" phase.